Biogas train to launch in Sweden

The world's first train to run on biogas, a renewable energy source made up of organic waste, will be inaugurated on Monday in Sweden, a country that has high hopes for biofuels.

The train will link the city of Linkoeping, just south of Stockholm, to the east coast town of Västervik some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. It consists of a single carriage that seats 54 passengers.

“This is the first train in the world driven by biogas,” Carl Lilliehöök, the head of the company Svensk Biogas that owns the train, told AFP.

The vehicle is a converted old Fiat train whose diesel engines have been replaced by two Volvo gas engines, he said.

The engine was replaced “so that the train would be more environmentally friendly”, since the combustion of biogas, like other biofuels, helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Biogas is made up of shredded plant materials and animal waste, which are then mixed with water in a tank. Once the waste has decomposed, a gas is formed that can be stored and used as fuel.

The train is equipped with eleven canisters containing enough gas to run for 600 kilometers (375 miles) before needing a refill, and can reach a maximum speed of 130 kilometers (80 miles) per hour, Lilliehöök said. The modus operandi was already a well-developed procedure, as some buses and cars in Sweden run on biogas, he said.

The country, home to nine million people, currently has 779 biogas buses and more than 4,500 cars that run on a mixture of petrol and either biogas or natural gas, according to the Swedish environment ministry.

Following a European directive urging governments to promote biofuels and other renewable energy sources for transportation as replacements for petrol and diesel, Sweden has decided to take the bull by the horns.

“Sweden has a rather ambitious target for 2005. That is (a) 3.0 percent” replacement level, Lars Guldbrand, an energy expert at the environment ministry, told AFP.

That goal is the highest among European Union member states, most of which have set a target of around 2.0 percent, he said.

Guldbrand said the new biogas train was a “very interesting” option and said he hoped there was a bright future for renewable energies.

“Oil is definitely becoming more expensive and more scarce, so we need something else,” he stressed.

In addition to the environmental aspect, biogas has the added advantage that it can be produced locally and supply is not dependent on imports, Lilliehöök and Guldbrand both pointed out.

The biogas train is as environmentally friendly as trains can get. While electric trains are considered non-pollutant, they often draw their energy from unclean power sources. And all of the current methods for generating electricity have their problems.

Burning fossil fuels creates the majority of today’s air pollution, which negatively affects air, water and land, which in turn affects our own health.

Hydroelectricity, where large dams are used to create energy from water, destroys ecosystems and kills wildlife. And generating power from the wind and sun only works when the sun is out or the wind is blowing, and wind turbines are often criticized for being ugly.

So a renewable energy source which can also be stored relatively easily, like biogas, looks like the perfect solution.

But according to Guldbrand, there are also snags: biogas is more expensive to produce than diesel, for example.

The new train, which cost Svensk Biogas 10 million kronor to develop, will go into service in September, operated by SJ, the Swedish railway.